Wachteligence: Johnny A. - A is for Awesome

By A.J. Wachtel
September 2010

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Walls shake when Johnny A plays. For years in bands like The Streets, Hidden Secret, and Hearts On Fire, his extraordinary guitar playing set standards that left audiences shaking their heads in disbelief and nightclubs demolished by his performances. He also was chosen to put a band together for Derek and the Dominoes keyboardist Bob Whitlock, the man who co-wrote, with Eric Clapton, all the songs on Layla. Read on and listen to Johnny look back and also hear what he is doing currently.

AJ: In the mid 80's, you played in a band fronted by the keyboardist for Derek And The Dominos, Bob Whitlock , and you played some gigs in a few states. How did that happen and who else was in the band?

JA: Our association started in 1978. I went down to stay at The Record Plant in Los Angeles to do some work and I met Whitlock and also Doug Clifford the drummer for Creedence Clearwater. We jammed and traded phone numbers and then I got a call that they wanted me to start a band with them. We started to do rehearsals and then I opted out because the band didn’t seem to have a direction. I was still in The Streets so I came back to Boston. And Bobby and I kept in touch. Then my friend Peter Lembo started handling him and I was called to be the music director and get a band together for him for a string of New England and east coast dates. Stu Kimball (now playing with Bob Dylan) was on guitar, Dave Amaral on bass, and Steve Barrett on drums along with Bobby on keyboards.

AJ: Looking back 25 years after your band Hearts On Fire lost the 1986 WBCN RUMBLE to punk pioneers Gang Green what's your take on your loss in the finals? Did you get robbed?

JA: I wouldn't exactly call them “pioneers” of punk. The punk movement was pretty well in full swing by the time they got there. Having said that, I thought they probably did a better job of what they did then we did. No, I didn’t think the talent was better. I’ve heard recordings of that night and I didn’t think it was my most stellar moment either. Carter Alan called me before the Rumble and asked me to put the “Hearts on Fire” band back together for the contest, and for a band put together for the rumble-in terms of substance of material, songwriting and melodies- I think we were the better band. I think they had a better delivery that night. On a personal note, they were totally unprofessional backstage.

AJ: Your guitar blues phrasing is legendary. Who were your idols growing up?

JA: I listened to James Burton, Chet Atkins, Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino.

AJ: What's the greatest Blues show you've ever seen in Boston?

JA: Probably 1969 The Caldwell-Winfield band with Billy Caldwell at The Psychedelic Supermarket. It was one of those nights. It reminded me of The Butterfield Blues Band and the like. A great night.

AJ: What famous artists have you opened for or shared the stage with over the years?

JA: Jeff Beck, B.B. King, Robert Cray, Jimmy Vaughn, Buddy Guy, I played the Eric Clapton Crossroads Festival, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson. George Thorogood.

AJ: What are you doing now?

JA: For the past 11 years I've had guitar instrumental project. I have three albums out and an instructional CD/DVD out. Currently, I have a 2 disc set-CD/DVD out called “One November Night” which was recorded live at Scullers.

AJ: You and Stu Kimball had all the Duane and Eric licks down pat when you played the Layla songs. What were practices like?

JA: We didn’t have a lot of rehearsals, maybe a week or so. Everyone did their homework and came to the gig prepared. Me and Stu were friends and we talked on the phone: “you take that part” or “I'll do that solo”. It was pretty well divided up what our roles were before we got to the first rehearsal too.

AJ: What was your favorite Layla song to play and why?

JA: The “(Layla) Assorted Love Songs” album was important to me growing up and we played all of it. “Tell The Truth”, “Anyday” “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad”........Playing the slide solo at the end of “Layla”, a pretty epic song.

AJ: Whitlock seemed like a hard drinking Mississippian with a young blonde permanently attached to his arm. What was he really like and do you still keep in touch with him?

JA: He was like what he appeared to be. Yeah, we communicate a couple of times a year. Last time I saw him he came to a show of mine in Austin, Texas where he is living now. That was last year.

AJ: Will you ever play together again?

JA: You never know.

AJ: Any advice to young musicians trying to get their music heard?

JA: Go to school and become a lawyer. (laughs)

AJ: What did it feel like being onstage playing classic tunes with the co-author of them?

JA: It was a thrill. One thing about Bobby-he's an absolute raw talent. When he plays his B-3 or when he's singing he never mailed it in. It’s the real deal. Anytime you play with an artist who leaves blood on the stage it’s ALWAYS a special experience.


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